Do we want our charities behaving like our worst corporations?
By Richard (RJ) Eskow, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future
Our society is permeated with a cultural of corporate greed,
aggression, and power that reaches from the boardrooms of New York to
the meeting rooms of Washington, and from to the hospital rooms of the
sick and suffering.
The Susan G. Komen foundation has raised millions to support vitally
important work, but it has also reinforced some of the worst tendencies
in our society. It has leveraged big-company resources so that it could
dominate its 'marketplace,' usually by serving as a marketing arm for a
client list that includes some very poorly-behaved corporate citizens.
Then it has used its market dominance to bully other organizations,
push its own political agenda, and tried to reshape the course of US
cancer research in dangerous ways.
Just like its most prominent sponsor, the Susan G. Komen foundation has become too big to fail.
Karen Handel had some bitter words
for her critics as she stepped down from her post as Komen's Vice
President for Public Policy. "I am deeply disappointed by the gross
mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement
in it," Handel wrote.
But there was no “strategy,” which Handel and others have defined as
denying funding to any group that is under Federal investigation. As we noted and others reported as well, a number of other Komen grant recipients were under real
Federal investigation and were left untouched, while Planned Parenthood
was to be cut for being the subject of a trumped-up one-person
investigation conducted by a right-wing member of Congress.
Nancy Brinker, Komen's founder and CEO, served in a number of
positions under George W. Bush, while Handel was a Sarah Palin-endorsed
gubernatorial candidate. Political affiliations shouldn't disqualify
anyone from serving in a charitable role, of course. Like many people,
I've often enjoyed working with ideological 'opponents' on charitable
issues of common interest. That kind of cause-based allegiance can help
bind our society together.
But Brinker brings her ideology into her Komen work, and has done it
so effectively that she's transformed the world of charitable giving –
for the worse. There isn't just the matter of her own personal compensation, which the foundation reported as $531, 924 as of 2010. Or the fact that
she's the only employee who flies first class at the charity's expense,
according to the fund's IRS financial filing. (See Komen's form 8453-EO for 2010.)
There's an argument to be made that highly effective fundraisers and
executives should receive good, if not, excessive, salaries and perks.
We won't have that argument here. And for all we know, Ms. Brinker may
donate her entire salary to charity. She did chose this career over
corporate life, after all, which seems like an altruistic move.
Nor will we argue that Nancy Brinker hasn't been effective at her job. But how has she been effective?
Lids and Buckets
Brinker is a brilliant marketer. She didn't build her charity one
donor at a time, but by channelling the power of the nation's
ultra-large corporations. As we reported earlier, the foundation
advertises itself to corporations this way: "Americans believe it's
more important than ever for companies to be socially responsible ... In
fact, 83% of Americans wish more of the products, services and
retailers they use would support causes ...”
Corporate executives understand the power of idealism – and how to
sell their products with it. The result means far less bang for your
charity buck, but a lot more sales for Komen's corporate clients.
Consider Yoplait. In 2005 it was able to move a lot more units of
yogurt by attaching Komen's pink-ribbon logo, and by promising to donate
ten cents for every Yoplait lid that buyers mailed in.
The problem? A stamp cost 37 cents in 2005, which means that the
charity received slightly more than one-fourth of what people paid - and
that's not including the cost of the yogurt itself. The charity only
received ten cents. But Komen also received massive marketing
visibility, with its logo on display in the dairy counter of almost
every supermarket in the country.
Yoplait sold yogurt, Komen pushed its brand, and people spent dollars
of their hard-earned money to donate ten cents – and to feel they'd
done their good deed for the day. That crowds out other forms of giving
that are more effective, and which don't build up a monopolistic
charity. As the San Francisco Business Times
reported, the range of products sporting Komen's pink ribbons soon
included “ golf balls, umbrellas, pencil sharpeners, grills, watches,
wine, jewelry, paint, candy, soda, pens, iPod cases, shower gel, mixers
and even pink-colored Tic-Tacs.”
Observers noted the irony when Komen teamed with KFC (Kentucky Fried
Chicken) to promote “Buckets for the Cure.” Komen was able to raise more
than $4 million by teaming with KFC to promote itself and unhealthy
food at the same time.
Bank of America, which is currently the target of multiple state and
Federal investigations, is prominently featured on the Komen website.
Although it was allowed to settle these multiple offenses while “neither
admitting nor denying wrongdoing,” the evidence – and the many millions
it has spent to avoid being charged – form a compelling picture of a
serial corporate fraudster.
There's nothing quite like the power of pink to fight a record like that.
The real question is: Do we really want our charities to be marketing arms for the country's largest corporations?
And do we want our charities behaving like our worst corporations?
The Komen fund has been ruthless and relentless in its drive to dominate
its brand. It hasn't hesitated to deploy flotillas of lawyers against
anyone it sees as a threat.
The group has directed its firepower most aggressively against anyone
who uses the words “the cure” in their promotional materials. Komen
seems to feel that this common phrase is now its own intellectual
property, and by fighting this fight its leading the charge to seize,
monetize, and capitalize one of the last commons left in our society:
It hasn't directed its attacks against for-profit entities, either,
but has pursued high-dollar litigation and intimidation tactics against
other charities. Uniting Against Lung Cancer was targeted for the
offense of holding a “Kites Against the Cure” event. They've also
attacked "Par for the Cure," "Surfing for a Cure," "Cupcakes for a Cure"
and "Mush for the Cure".
Komen has even threatened other charities with legal action if they
use the color pink in their materials. Pink is, as every Aerosmith fan
knows, “like red but not quite.” The band also describes the color as
“not even a question,” which seems to be Komen's view of their ownership
Here's a thought: If Komen's going to sue people for using “the
cure” in their materials, then guess who should sue Komen? The Cure.
The British band was formed in 1976, six years before ]Susan G. Komen
For the Cure was formed. I think Robert Smith and company have a
In the meantime, Komen marches on relentlessly, leveraging its
corporate money and political firepower to crush anyone in its way. As
the old Cure song says, “However big I feel, it's never enough.”
Too Big to Fail
Komen has made itself the dominant player in private breast cancer
funding. What does that mean?
For one thing, major research institutes
have to think twice before crossing it. When Komen announces that it
will no longer fund stem-cell research, researchers all across the
country have to rethink their priorities. And if a promising avenue is
closed off, we may lose a tool that could save millions of lives.
It can apply the same forms of intimidation to other organizations in
the charitable sphere. And it can use its visibility and financial
resources to throw its weight around in the corridors of political
power, both in Washington and in state capitols around the country.
In the wake of Ms. Handel's departure, it's worth asking why an organization like this needs
a Vice President of Public Policy. That title is usual reserved for
researchers – or for lobbyists. Ms. Handel's biography and job
description make it clear she's not a researcher.
What's more, the Komen foundation has been giving money to Ari
Fleischer and other highly political consultants. How many Komen donors
knew they were subsidizing right-wing political groups? And do we know
whether Ms. Handel will continue to receive a salary from Komen? A
review of that 2010 IRS documents suggests that two former executives
were receiving six-figure annual salaries while dong no work. Are Komen
donors funding right-wing ideologues?
The Cure for the Race
The solution for too-big-to-fail charities isn't all that different
from the banking solution. But banks are more highly regulated than
charities, which is appropriate. But the public can still decide
whether, to paraphrase Alan Greenspan, “too big to fail is too big to
exist" in the world of charitable giving. If it feels that way about
the Susan G. Komen fund, then it can and should contribute elsewhere.
Brinker and her colleagues can't object to that, can they? That's just the free market at work.
People can even use the pink-ribbon as a reminder: When they see it
they can remember to donate to another charity. That's thinking, not
marketing, and no one – including Nancy Brinker – has figured out how to
sue people for their thoughts.
At least, not yet.